Possible carcinogenic effect of 6-mercaptopurine on bone marrow stem cells: Relation to thiopurine metabolism

Jens Bo Thomsen, Henrik Schrøder, Jon Kristinsson, Bibi Madsen, Carol Szumlanski, Richard Weinshilboum, Jesper Brandt Andersen, Kjeld Schmiegelow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

146 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND. 6-Mercaptopurine (6MP) has been regarded as nonleukemogenic, even though the cytotoxicity of 6MP depends on the incorporation of 6- thioguanine nucleotides (6TGN) into DNA. In hematopoietic cells this pathway competes with S-methylation catalyzed by thiopurine methyltransferase (TPMT). However, methylated 6MP metabolites inhibit purine de novo synthesis and thus may enhance incorporation of 6TGN into DNA. Approximately 10% of white individuals have low TPMT activity as a result of polymorphisms in the TPMT gene. The authors attempted to test the hypothesis that the degree of DNA damage during 6MP therapy might reflect variations in 6MP metabolism and pharmacokinetics. METHODS. The authors measured TPMT activity as well as erythrocyte levels of 6TGN (E-6TGN) and methylated 6MP metabolites (E-MeMP) during 6MP therapy in 439 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, 5 of whom later developed secondary myelodysplasia or acute myeloid leukemia (sMDS/AML). RESULTS. The patients who developed sMDS/AML had significantly lower TPMT activity compared with the remaining patients (P = 0.03). The 55 patients with TPMT activity <14 U/mL red blood cells (RBC) (antimode of the bimodal distribution) had a 5-year risk of sMDS/AML of 9 ± 6% versus 1 ± 1% for the remaining patients (P = 0.002). Cox regression analysis identified TPMT activity and E-MeMP level as the strongest predictors of risk for sMDS/AML (global P value = 0.02). Patients with low TPMT activity and high E- MeMP levels had the highest risk. All 5 patients with sMDS/AML had E-6TGN and/or E-MeMP levels > the 90% percentiles or had TPMT activity < 14 U/mL RBC. CONCLUSIONS. These data demonstrate an increased leukemogenic risk when 6MP is administered with other cytotoxic agents in patients with low TPMT activity, and indicate that not only high 6TGN levels but also high levels of methylated metabolites may lead to DNA damage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1080-1086
Number of pages7
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 15 1999


  • 6-mercaptopurine
  • Child
  • Pharmacokinetics
  • Secondary leukemia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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